Socrates Essay, Research Paper
Socrates was and is one of the most influential figures in the history of Western philosophy. He was a philosopher of Athens, generally regarded as one of the wisest people of all time. As if to fill the gap, successive individual philosophers and philosophical traditions – from Plato to Aristotle and beyond – construct a range of different Socrates, to serve either as a model for emulation or as a target of attack. It is this idea of the truth being pursued, rather than discovered, that characterizes Socratic thought and much of our worldview today. Socrates thinking became the heart of philosophy because it submitted us to question the decisions we have or will have made and the lives we choose for ourselves.
Socrates, unlike Plato, was always conscious of how much he did not know, and claimed superiority to unthinking people only in that he was aware of his own ignorance where they were not:
The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing? The wisest of you men is he who has realized, like Socrates, that in respect of wisdom, he is really worthless. (p. 15)
Socrates wrote nothing because he felt that knowledge was a living, interactive thing. Because he felt he had no special wisdom or knowledge of his own, Socrates did not write any works or charge for his services:
He is not, he says, a man who teaches for money, like the professional ‘Sophists’ with whom Aristophanes has confused him. (p. 13)
He held open discussions with any citizen who was willing to converse with him. His questioning still lingers to the present day because he was the first person to open our eyes to perplexity of wisdom. At that time, Socrates wanted to discuss what people already thought they knew which made the citizens of Athens question their knowledge on everything. Their topics included love, politics, war, friendship, poetry, religion, science and government but all centered around a central theme of “how should a man live his life:”
The important discussions of the real Socrates were exclusively concerned with how one ought to live. They were mostly about the virtues, of which there were conventionally held to be five: courage, moderation, piety, wisdom and justice. (p. 22-23)
In these discussions Socrates would employ what is now known as the Socratic method (in his honor). Instead of lecturing his students, he would invite them to consider the question with him, which was proven to be much more effective because this method is still practiced to this day. The goal was not for Socrates to teach his students what he thought of the various subjects but rather to teach them to think critically about the subjects for themselves. Very often this involved ways of asking one of his followers for the meaning of some concept such as piety, morality, or something similar. Socrates and the other students then subjected that definition to analysis and criticism. Sometimes these exercises were used simply to find an agreed-upon meaning for some term. Most often, however, these discussions were used to show that the common definition or understanding of the term was inconsistent or disputable. He knew that there was no precise answer to his questions and was not trying to persuade people into believing his propositions:
Quite the contrary, in fact, for he was forever insisting on his own uncertainty and tentativeness of his inquiries?But he does not really aim to do that anyway because he is not absolutely sure that his theory is right and, besides, people must find their own way to the truth of such matters. (p. 29)
Like many philosophers alive in his time, it was Socrates belief that virtue could only be attained through examination. Only through exploration can you really understand what virtue is, and begin to act virtuously. By questioning students about really comprehending virtue and religion, Socrates finds out that no one truly understands and/or can define the questions he inquires. His reasoning reflected upon our society because we, too, are taught that knowledge can be varied and challenged. Understanding, as well as sharing, this information was very important goal to Socrates, as seen in this quote:
A man could not be truly virtuous unless he knew what virtue was, and the only way he might be able to get this knowledge was by examining accounts of the particular virtues. That is why Socrates went around questioning people and arguing with them. (p. 24)
Socrates claimed that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” His interrogations on society allow us to fully understand our own existence. He wants the people to not fear what is unknown and to promote the questioning of beliefs. We must comprehend who are where we come from because this is the primary purpose of life and if we do not explore human behavior, we will never understand human nature:
The unexamined life, as he famously said in his defense-speech, is not worth living, and this is not a fate to which he meant to condemn all but a chosen few. Anybody could examine his own life and ideas and thus lead a worthwhile existence. (p.25)
However, all Socrates ever accomplished was questioning and probing the democratic beliefs of his day. Socrates built nothing, wrote nothing; instead he strove to destroy the legitimacy of free men ruling themselves, as opposed to concepts of authoritarian rule, and thus was never more than a moral vandal to the social order of fifth century Athens. People began to question his beliefs, religion and morals. His technique was shown to be effective but unreliable because he had no way of validating his thoughts. Socrates had caught the attention of young adults but was frustrating his superiors. His persistence was controversial because he lacked evidence to prove his ideologies, which might have led him to be the wisest, most intuitive philosopher, but instead, caused him to die. His exploration and constant embarrassment to the “wise” people of Athens, which was unintentional, caused him to go to jail and then sentenced to death:
The nub of this defense is Socrates’ claim that he has positively benefited the Athenians by subjecting them to his philosophical cross-examinations, but that they have failed to realize this and merely been angered by it, which is why he has ended up on trial for his life. (p. 13)
Nevertheless, the significance of examining and understanding our lives is far greater than one might think. Socrates taught us the importance of understanding and comprehending the behavior of friends, as well as of ourselves, to enable us to have empathy and compassion for them. And, allows us not to stand in judgment, which, in turn, allows us to live the moral, noble lives that Socrates spoke of. Socrates equated virtue with the knowledge of one’s true self, holding that no one knowingly does wrong. He looked upon the soul as the seat of both waking consciousness and moral character, and held the universe to be purposively mind-ordered.
Socrates’ method of philosophical inquiry consisted in questioning people on the positions they asserted and working them through questions into a contradiction, thus proving to them that their original assertion was wrong. Socrates believed in the limitless possibilities of human knowledge – that there was no limit to what a man can learn. And in the language of logic, Socrates’ contribution, as Aristotle observed, constituted the origin and development of the system of induction and definition. Socrates is the man who established the basis of western thought, which has persisted to the present day. Socrates contribution to philosophy is immeasurable. His practice of philosophy is a turning point in the history of the subject. He marks the turning point away from philosophy as a study of the natural world to philosophy, the study of human nature.